British Navy warship sails near Beijing-claimed islands: sources

By Reuters, VnExpress   September 5, 2018 | 04:51 pm PT
British Navy warship sails near Beijing-claimed islands: sources
Military vehicles are seen in the loading dock of the HMS Albion, the British Royal Navy flagship amphibious assault ship, after the ship's arrival at Harumi Pier in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Toru Hanai
A British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China, heading toward Vietnam, two sources said.

The move aims to assert “freedom of navigation” rights and challenging Beijing’s “excessive claims” in the South China Sea, said the sources, who were familiar with the matter but who asked not to be identified.

Vietnam calls the waters the East Sea.

The HMS Albion, a 22,000 ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, passed by the Paracel Islands in recent days, said the sources. China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam by force in 1974 and has been occupying the archipelago illegally since, although Vietnam has repeatedly demonstrated legal and historical evidences to affirm its sovereignty rights.

The Albion was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday following a deployment in and around Japan.

One of the sources said Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British vessel, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.

The other source the Albion did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the hotly disputed region but demonstrated that Britain does not recognize excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.

A spokesman for the Royal Navy said: “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”

Neither China’s Foreign nor Defense Ministries immediately responded to a request for comment.

Freedom of navigation 

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Britain does not have any territorial claims in the area.

While the U.S. Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the same area in the past, this British challenge to China’s growing control of the strategic waterway comes after the United States has said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.

Both Britain and the United States say they conduct FONOP operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies.

The British Navy has previously sailed close to the disputed Spratly Islands, further south in the South China Sea, but not within the 12 nautical mile limit, diplomatic sources have said.

FONOPs, which are largely symbolic, have so far not persuaded Beijing to curtail its South China Sea activities, which have included extensive reclamation of reefs and islands and the construction of runways, hangars and missile systems.

Beijing says it is entitled to build on its territories and says the facilities are for civilian use and necessary self-defense purposes. China blames Washington for militarizing the region with its freedom of navigation patrols.

Foreign aircraft and vessels in the region are routinely challenged by Chinese naval ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources have said previously.

In April, warships from Australia - which like Britain is a close U.S. ally - had what Canberra described as a close “encounter” with Chinese naval vessels in the contested sea.

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